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May 14, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

Trimming the Field

by Bryan Smith

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Last week, I began a three-part series with the intention of projecting the 64 universities that will land bids to the NCAA Tournament. The first step is always the easiest in a project like this, as we know 30 teams will gain entry by securing the automatic bid that the winner of each conference tournament receives. I also highlighted 24 teams from 10 different conferences that already have the resumes that will result in an at-large bid. This leaves between 10 and 20 spots available to the 41 teams I had listed as bubble at-large contenders. This week (and next), these schools will be at the heart of our discussion.

First, a quick review of the status of the "in" crowd, as highlighted last week:

  • ACC: North Carolina, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami (FL), and Virginia.
  • Big Ten: Minnesota.
  • Big XII: Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas A&M.
  • Big South: Coastal Carolina.
  • Big West: Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, and UC Irvine.
  • Conference USA: East Carolina and Rice.
  • Ivy League: Dartmouth.
  • MWC: Texas Christian.
  • Pac-10: Arizona State.
  • SEC: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana State, and Mississippi.
  • SoCon: Elon.

Automatic bids only:

  • America East
  • Atlantic 10
  • Atlantic Sun
  • Big East
  • CAA
  • Horizon
  • MAAC
  • MAC
  • MEAC
  • MVC
  • NEC
  • OVC
  • Patriot
  • Southland
  • Summit
  • Sun Belt
  • SWAC
  • WAC
  • WCC

That's where we stood last week, but since then, I see five more teams that have earned their way onto the list. On the other side of the coin, by not taking care of business this past weekend, a group of eight schools are no longer in contention for an at-large bid. This breaks our bubble list down to 28 schools. First, we'll look at those whose status has become definitive after last weekend. All referenced RPI's come from the irreplaceable Boyd Nation at BoydsWorld.com.

Welcome "In"

Clemson was very close when last we spoke; despite some early season struggles, they have stayed in the top 20 in RPI all season long. All it took to push Clemson into the top ten in RPI (9) and guarantee them a spot in the regionals was a weekend series win over North Carolina-Wilmington, followed by a mid-week win over College of Charleston.

When the brackets are released, the regional hosts will be very anxious to make sure that they don't have to play Alabama. The Tide are 20-5 since April 1, and they swept Arkansas at home over the weekend. Not only has this team taken itself off of the bubble, they are now in the mix for a two-seed.

South Carolina didn't need much, but a series win over Tennessee was enough to get them over the hump and into the tournament. With Vanderbilt beating Georgia and Kentucky beating Auburn, the chances of the SEC being a nine-bid conference have never been better.

Louisville had a nice week, beating St. John's over the weekend, and formidable in-state rival Western Kentucky. Their RPI is guaranteed to finish in the top 45, and the committee will be looking to reward borderline northern teams.

Barring some unlikely events this weekend, the Big XII regular season will close with Missouri finishing in second place. In a conference of this size, second place is enough to get you into the tournament. Like Clemson, they disappointed in March and April, but after beating Kansas last weekend, they're in.

The Bubble Has Been Burst

The Big West will most assuredly get only three teams into the tournament, as UC Riverside and Long Beach State officially ruined their chances last weekend. Riverside lost at conference-worst UC Davis, while the Dirtbags were swept by UC Santa Barbara. Neither team is in the top 80 in RPI, and with so many schools sitting 30-50, they just can't build a convincing argument.

Staying on the West Coast, the Pac-10 also loses two teams from their bubble list, which now stands at three. Southern California, in their final season with Grant Green, Robert Stock, and Brad Boxberger, just couldn't afford to lose to Cal State Northridge last weekend-in fact, they probably needed a sweep. UCLA, one of the year's biggest disappointments, lost to California, and now have an RPI at 76.

Any hopes that Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference had of sending three teams to the tournament took a big hit last weekend. Houston would have seen a big RPI boost had they beaten East Carolina, but with a series loss instead, they now sit at 93. New Mexico also needed a weekend upset on the road against Stanford (another bubble team), but they did not get it. The MWC still has hopes of San Diego State and BYU gaining entry alongside Texas Christian, but I don't see both getting in.

Running through the final two, Duke needed to beat Virginia to have their tournament wishes come true, and they failed. Good season for a rising Blue Devils program (that values defense!), but not quite postseason worthy. Finally, Loyola Marymount couldn't afford to be swept in Tucson against Arizona, and now, they have just two weeks until their season ends.

The Remaining Bubble Teams

Ranked by RPI:

22. Baylor
25. Oklahoma State
30. Texas State
32. Ohio State
33. Vanderbilt
34. Auburn
35. Georgia Southern
36. Hawaii
37. Boston College
38. San Diego State
39. Oregon State
40. Dallas Baptist
42. Western Kentucky
43. College of Charleston
44. Kentucky
46. Eastern Illinois
47. Southeastern Louisiana
49. San Diego
50. Western Carolina
51. Troy
52. Middle Tennessee State
53. Illinois
55. Washington State
57. Kansas
58. Brigham Young
61. Oral Roberts
62. Gonzaga
66. Stanford

Thoughts on the Bubbles:

  • The two closest to "in" status are Ohio State and Texas State. The Buckeyes got a big series win in Champaign against Illinois last weekend, clearly establishing themselves as the #2 team in the Big Ten. If Illinois or Indiana wins the Big Ten Tournament, will the committee be ready to award the conference with three bids? Texas State was so close for me that if they had beat Texas A&M in a mid-week game, I would have put them in, but bad losses can do a number on your RPI, and unless they finish the regular season strong, I can't include them.

  • Baylor and Oklahoma State are a combined 17-28 in the Big XII. I just can't see the committee awarding that kind of performance, but something tells me that Baylor is close. If they sweep Nebraska this weekend and get to .500 in the conference, I'm going to put them in. The Cowboys are done, no matter what the outcome is with Texas Tech this weekend.

  • I'm really intrigued by the way that the Pac-10 gets teams into this tournament. Oregon State didn't gain anything by losing to Washington last week, and we've already covered the demise of UCLA and USC. I do think that the winner of this weekend's Oregon State vs. Washington State series gets into the tournament, making it the one to watch this weekend, but does the loser have a chance? And we're clearly stretching it by calling Stanford a bubble team, but if they finish 6-1, there is an argument to be made.

  • I like the bubble list this year because there's a host of mid-majors, so the tournament should have some nice small school stories. While they continue to take care of business within their respective conferences, they haven't been doing themselves any favors in the middle of the week. Here's the list of small schools that lost mid-week games to "big" programs: Georgia Southern (Auburn), College of Charleston (Clemson), Texas State (Texas A&M), Oral Roberts (Arkansas), Western Kentucky (Louisville), and Middle Tennessee State (Tennessee). These are wins that ultimately separate you from the rest in the eyes of the committee, and the type of games that they can't afford to lose for the rest of the season.

  • No team's status interests me more than San Diego from the above list. This year the Torreros put together a really difficult schedule, and after a slew of injuries, they couldn't make it to a 30-win season. In the last month, the team slumped to a 6-12 finish, including a loss to San Francisco at home in their final weekend series (due to exams, they're done with the regular season). This team has the talent to beat anyone, however, including UC Irvine, who they beat in Irvine to finish their season on Tuesday. I can't figure it out-but I don't admire the committee's job, I'll tell you that much.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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